Willie Nelson is a phenomenon. He is also a nonagenarian – he turned ninety on 29 April 2023. He celebrated his birthday with a sold-out event over two nights (29 and 30 April) at the Hollywood Bowl. The two four hour shows included over 50 artists. The guestlist illustrates the esteem in which Willie Nelson is held and illustrates the great diversity of Willie Nelson’s musician fans. Yet, there are music listeners who find Nelson too hokey, too country, and who don’t get his singing style.
When faced by people who roll their eyes when I mention Nelson, I have two fallbacks to get them to open their minds. I mention that in an Uncut Magazine interview, the very funky Bootsy Collins called Nelson the funkiest white man alive. Then I mention that Miles Davis saw an affinity between his trumpet playing and Willie Nelson’s singing. Davis has a track called Willie Nelson. I’ll get back to this. First, here is 90-year-old Nelson on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday 1 Nov.
Willie Nelson was in New York to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Friday 3 November 2023 (the oldest living inductee to accept the honor in person). Some might say it’s way too late in coming, some might say the delay is because Nelson is not Rock & Roll enough. For my part. I’d say that Willie Nelson is beyond needing awards, but if you want to argue about Nelson’s rock and roll credentials, go speak to his friend Keith Richards and see how far you get.
Getting back to Miles Davis and Willie Nelson, Davis observed that he and Nelson have a similar style of phrasing. The Washington Post elaborates: “They shape lines dramatically with unexpected pauses and harmonies, an evocative grainy tone and wistful understatement.” Nelson’s friend Waylon Jennings has described Nelson’s singing style as “back phrasing” (singing off the beat on purpose). Then there are Nelson’s improvisations with melody. I’ll elaborate, but first another Late Show video.
Whiskey River, from Willie Nelson’s seminal 1973 album, Shotgun Willie, was Nelson’s second consecutive appearance on the Late Show. The Thursday 2 November appearance also featured an interview filmed on Willie Nelson’s tour bus, which we’ll get to presently. At this point I should mention that our first video featured 1964’s I Never Cared for You, I should also mention that the all-star band is made up of Nelson’s son Micah on acoustic guitar, Don Was on bass, Paul Franklin on pedal steel, Matt Rollings on organ, Terence Higgins on drums, and Mickey Raphael on harmonica.
Talking about Willie Nelson’s back phrasing, Willie’s great friend Waylon Jennings spoke of the confusion and concern he tended to feel when Nelson started a phrase. For Waylon (1937 – 2002), Willie started so off the beat, that it seemed as if there was no way for Willie to snap into the groove. But, Jennings said, he “always comes out of it.” As regards melody, record producer, songwriter, and country music entrepreneur, Joe Allison, said that Willie Nelson will seem to get the “melody muddled up in the middle. But just when you think there is ”no way will he make it out at the end of the measure. It always comes out.”
In the past, if Miles Davis and Bootsy Collins references didn’t impress those who rolled their eyes at the thought of listening to Willie Nelson, I might have mentioned Nelson’s stunning reggae duet with the late Toots Hibbert, Still is Moving To Me. The reason I bother to make the case for Willie is that I understand that there are reasons why some of my friends might not get Willie Nelson. This means that they are missing out on so much great music, so much heart and soul. Now I have a new option. I can reference the large number and variety of artists who turned out to support Willie Nelson at his 90th birthday concerts (highlights from which will be televised and released in various formats in December). Here an abbreviated list: Beck, Billy Strings, Tom Jones, Bobby Weir, Booker T. Jones, Charley Crockett, Keith Richards, Charlie Sexton, Neil Young, Chris Stapleton, Leon Bridges, Daniel Lanois, Dave Matthews, Snoop Dogg, Dwight Yoakam, Orville Peck, Edie Brickell, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Gary Clark Jr., George Strait, Jack Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Sturgill Simpson, Lukas Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Shooter Jennings, Stephen Stills, The Chicks, The Lumineers, Tyler Childers and Ziggy Marley.
I still haven’t mentioned Trigger, the modified and amplified Martin N-20 nylon-string classical acoustic guitar that Willie Nelson has played since 1969. The guitar is iconic, and, as you would have seen in our first two videos, well-worn from being well-played. And I haven’t mentioned Outlaw Country, the Farm Aid concerts, and so much more. Another time perhaps. For now, The Music Man congratulates Willie Nelson on his well-deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. To play out, here’s the video interview recorded by Stephen Colbert on Willie Nelson’s second home, his touring bus.